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Why Boris Johnson is risking it all with his push for a Christmas poll

BayRadio | October 30, 2019

The prime minister on Monday evening was defeated in his third attempt to get a general election across the line.

But with the help of the Liberal Democrats and the Scottish National Party he might be fourth time lucky with a Christmas election now in his grasp.

In a fresh gambit, Boris Johnson will on Tuesday table a short bill to hold an Brexit election on 12 December. The Fixed Term Parliaments Act requires two thirds of MPs to back a poll, but this mechanism requires a simple majority. The SNP and Lib Dems made it clear this weekend that they are, in principle, willing to have an election to break the deadlock.

This time then it is really game on.

There are still plenty of hurdles to get his election plan across the line in the next 24 hours. The Lib Dems are opposed to the date, insisting on a 9 December poll in order to dissolve parliament this week and ensure Mr Johnson cannot bring his Brexit Bill back.

And some Scottish Nationalists might want to push through amendments – such as votes for 16 and 17-year-olds – that the government cannot live with. There are whispers of divisions within the Lib Dems and some nervousness in the SNP camp about being on Team Johnson, just this once.

But, if the government and opposition parties can iron out their differences, we will be heading to the polls before Christmas.

It offers a moment of clarity after days of wrangling behind the scenes in No. 10 over the what the prime minister should do next once his “do or die” Halloween deadline was finally put to bed. There has been a genuine split between his advisers, cabinet and MPs over the strategy of going early and risking a general election versus trying to get Brexit over the line first.

Mr Johnson has decided to go for the gamble and put Brexit on hold as he seeks to win a mandate from the public. It is undoubtedly a risky strategy: The Conservatives are well ahead of Labour in the polls, but an election against the backdrop of a Brexit not yet delivered promises to be unpredictable and volatile.

For the Liberal Democrats, going for an early election is a no-brainer. An election before Brexit is settled works to their advantage, while the SNP wants to trigger the election before the former first minister Alex Salmond – who is facing a trial over two counts of attempted rape and multiple sexual assault charges, all of which he strenuously denies – appears in court early next year.

Mr Johnson has been weighing up competing arguments. In one camp is the Vote Leave team within No. 10 – led by senior adviser Dominic Cummings and director of communications Lee Cain – who think the prime minister, having failed to deliver Brexit on 31 October, must now trigger the “people versus parliament” election to try to galvanise the 52% who voted Leave in the 2016 referendum and who might still back Boris Johnson to get Brexit done.

In the other are those who believe the prime minister would do better to get this bill through and cement his place in history as the Conservative leader who delivered Brexit rather than risk it all at the polls. Some officials, as well as members of his cabinet, have been pressing for the government to bring back a timetable to pass the bill in November, and then hold an election in the Spring.

This is the “a bird in the hand is worth two in the bush” train of thought. It is better to try to get Brexit over the line than risk it all on a general election that could result in the Conservatives losing Brexit altogether if it doesn’t go their way.

MPs worry that the Tories will face a pincer movement from the Lib Dems in remain-facing seats in Scotland and pockets of England and Nigel Farage in Vote Leave areas banging the Brexit betrayal drum.

Brexiteers privately tell me that they would rather the legislation gets past. The European Research Group (ERG) could perhaps hold their noses and vote for an amended Withdrawal Agreement Bill, softened up by Labour MPs and former Conservatives, in return for Brexit becoming reality, and in the knowledge that the prime minister could change the terms of a future trade deal if he won a majority in a Spring election next year.

And One Nation Tories too are nervous. They have been pressing the prime minister to at least try to pass his Brexit Bill before an election. But whether his own backbenchers try to block him is another matter altogether.

For there are those around him that believe he must take back control of the process and put it back to voters via the ballot box. Some around him are convinced parliament will only toy with this Brexit deal like a mouse with a cat, keeping him and his Brexit plan in purgatory for as long as possible. He will get neither Brexit not his desired election and emerge a weaker prime minister amid the wrangling and delay.

With so much at stake, it is not clear if the SNP and the Liberal Democrats will support his election bid. One senior opposition source told me on Monday night that they thought it 50-50 as to whether the election vote would succeed.

There hasn’t been a December election in this country in nearly a century. Dark winter nights are not conducive to campaigning or turning out voters.

But this is Brexit and it breaks all the conventions and the rules. By Tuesday night we should know whether MPs are going to make history and give us a Christmas poll.

Written by BayRadio

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